The economic effects of coronavirus (Covid-19) are being felt by people and businesses all over the UK. But spare a thought for Rupert Murdoch, Daily Mail owner the 4th Viscount Rothermere, Telegraph owners the Barclay brothers, and Gannett (the multi-billion-dollar US company of which one subsidiary is Newsquest, which owns dozens of local newspapers across the UK). They must have been struggling because the newspapers they own, having taken a break from bashing folk on the poverty line for ‘taking state handouts’, have grabbed a huge state handout in the form of a £35m advertising deal.
Dressing it up as an ad deal is a clever ploy. The advertisements in question are about coronavirus, with some of them carrying public health messages. So, the government claims, this is an integral element of a vital public health campaign.
This does not wash for a few reasons.
Pull the other one
Firstly, the government has excluded independent media titles. Analysis has shown that 92% of the titles to benefit are members of the News Media Association – a powerful alliance of the wealthiest publishers currently chaired by former Sun editor David Dinsmore. Secondly, the titles which are participating (and filling their pockets with your cash) are among the least trusted. A recent survey suggested that just 14% of the public had a high level of trust in the Sun regarding coronavirus information; and few corporate titles do much better. If you were running a public health campaign with messages that you wanted the public to trust and listen to, you could surely do better than spend taxpayers’ money on a publication that so few people trust. Thirdly, the deal is targeted at print titles only, which are no longer the main way people get their information.
Strip away the nonsense, and this is a payday for the corporate press. And we are all footing the bill.
What about independent media?
That is not to say that the government should not look at ways to support the media. Quality, ethical journalism needs protecting, now more than ever – especially at the local level. And lots of titles are struggling. Targeted funding for the independent and ethically-regulated press would be sound policy. But not the corporates. The big media empires will manage just fine.
The Express and Mirror’s publisher, Reach, which also publishes dozens of local titles, may have pleaded poverty when it controversially cut journalists’ salaries by 10%. But don’t worry, it still had almost £300,000 to give out in bonuses to senior executives and has reportedly managed to swell its cash reserves by £13m over the course of the pandemic. It has also spent tens of millions in legal fees on some of the most expensive London silks in a failed attempt to deny liability for years of illegal hacking and blagging. It happily took its share of the £35m.
Independent publishers, meanwhile, got nothing. In fact, of all the initiatives announced by the government to support businesses affected by coronavirus, 95% of surveyed independent publishers said they were ineligible for all of them. It’s as if the government is happy to see independent publishers waste away, while the corporate media flourishes.
Perhaps most importantly for anyone who believes in fairness and social justice, independent publishers are more likely to be effectively regulated in the public interest. Such regulation is required to be independent – as recommended in the Leveson Inquiry – and in turn requires publishers to abide by ethical standards of professional practice while ensuring that media outlets are sanctioned when those standards are breached. It also protects media outlets from political interference of all kinds. There is such a regulator, IMPRESS, which includes The Canary in its membership.
In contrast, IPSO – the complaints-handler for the corporate press which is backed by the ‘News Media Association‘ – is controlled by the newspaper industry. Its standards are written by a group of newspaper editors and it is chaired by a former Conservative member of the government. IPSO effectively does no regulation at all (having carried no investigations and levied no fines in its five-year history). Of the titles which benefited from the £35m pot, hundreds were in IPSO. Virtually none were in IMPRESS.
Why this matters
Media accountability should matter to the people on the left. Independence of regulation is what makes the difference between newspapers that smear Muslims, intrude on ordinary members of the public and destroy people’s lives, and media that holds power to account and acts in the public interest. It is the difference between newspapers churning out fake news, and media that reports responsibly – and is corrected when it gets things wrong. Independent regulation still allows newspaper and news website op-eds to be partisan. They just cannot lie and get away with it.
So the government isn’t just topping up the bank balances of the wealthiest titles; it is also pursuing a policy of rewarding unregulated titles responsible for fake news and press abuse, while shafting those which are regulated independently. The left has a proud history of standing up for press freedom and accountability. During the last Labour leadership election, for example, dozens of leading MPs and supporters from across the party co-signed an open letter calling for the new leader to continue the party’s stance on independent regulation and part two of the Leveson Inquiry.
It’s essential that we keep fighting to ensure the government is held to account for policy which rewards unethical journalism and punishes media outlets that do the right thing.
Featured image via BBC screenshot
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